The Common Good

The Locavore's Dilemma: What We Eat is More Than Just a Personal Choice

I'm a cradle vegetarian. Didn't have even a bite of meat -- red or white, fish or fowl -- until I was maybe eleven years old, and then I lost my dietary virginity to a hot dog. Go ahead and snicker. I'm not a vegetarian anymore. I had some chicken when I was fourteen right after I dissected a frog in biology lab; I almost threw up. Tried lamb chops a couple of years later: gross. By my mid thirties, I was able to enjoy the occasional beef or chicken in restaurants, and a decade later I discovered how to broil salmon at home.

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I'm sixty-one now, and I still can't prepare a decent beef steak or roast. I've never roasted a whole chicken, and I don't know how to bone a fish. Last Thanksgiving my turkey tasted fine, but our guests had to read instructions out of a cookbook while Mr Neff manfully carved it. He was pretty much raised vegetarian too. So it's no wonder that he sent me a link to James E. McWilliams's article "Bellying Up to Environmentalism" in The Washington Post. McWilliams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, argues that what we eat -- whether we are vegetarians or meat eaters -- is more than just a personal choice:

Here's why: The livestock industry as a result of its reliance on corn and soy-based feed accounts for over half the synthetic fertilizer used in the United States, contributing more than any other sector to marine dead zones. It consumes 70 percent of the water in the American West -- water so heavily subsidized that if irrigation supports were removed, ground beef would cost $35 a pound. Livestock accounts for at least 21 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions globally -- more than all forms of transportation combined. Domestic animals -- most of them healthy -- consume about 70 percent of all the antibiotics produced. Undigested antibiotics leach from manure into freshwater systems and impair the sex organs of fish.It takes a gallon of gasoline to produce a pound of conventional beef. If all the grain fed to animals went to people, you could feed China and India. That's just a start.

Most alternatively produced meat is little better, McWilliams says. (Did you know that grass-fed cows produce four times the methane of grain-fed cows? Eeeeeeeeew.) The label may say "free range," but that doesn't mean the chickens have been frolicking in the grass. Well, maybe a few of them have been. A farmer who sells pork, chicken, and eggs at Wheaton's outdoor market displays a notebook full of pictures of his contented animals enjoying their short but happy lives. But his food is awfully expensive, and very few people have access to it.

McWilliams raises a troubling question:

If someone told you that a particular corporation was trashing the air, water and soil; causing more global warming than the transportation industry; consuming massive amounts of fossil fuel; unleashing the cruelest sort of suffering on innocent and sentient beings; failing to recycle its waste; and clogging our arteries in the process, how would you react? Would you say, "Hey, that's personal?"

Well, no. And I don't think America's consumption of vast quantities of corn syrup is personal either. Nor is our addiction to fast food. In my vision of the Peaceable Kingdom, all 308 million of us would have access to a steady supply of fresh, organically grown vegetables and fruits. We'd eat meat, but considerably less of it, and all of our meat would come from brilliantly run small farms like Polyface Farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, described in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Polyface's meat animals do not damage the earth. Their Web site notes that "pastured livestock and poultry, moved frequently to new 'salad bars,' offer landscape healing and nutritional superiority." (The Web site does not discuss the methane problem.)

But in the meantime, and given what is generally available in the suburbs and cities where most of us live, how do we eat for our own health -- and for the common good?

portrait-lavonne-neffLaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust.

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